LOS ANGELES -- It could have been a glorious evening at Dodger Stadium. There was a key series finale against the San Diego Padres, a golden chance to take three of four from the division leaders and continue what had felt like a mini-resurgence by the Dodgers in their two previous games. There was even what appeared to be a favorable pitching matchup, with Chad Billingsley taking his scoreless-innings streak to the mound against the decidedly middling Kevin Correia.
A few hours later, the Dodgers seemed to be right back where they had been at the start of the week. Both literally, as they once again found themselves eight games behind the Padres in the National League West, and figuratively, as their offense was stuffed yet again in a 5-0 defeat before 44,739 at Dodger Stadium.
Talk about your emotional letdowns. Or maybe not.
"As far as deflating, no," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said, "but it is frustrating."
The Dodgers were held to two runs or fewer for the 14th time in 21 games since the All-Star break. At a point when the five men in their starting rotation are basically doing everything that could possibly be asked of them, that sputtering offense is the primary reason why the Dodgers (56-53) remained mired in fourth place. Their hopes of an unprecedented third consecutive postseason appearance get murkier by the day.
"We've still got two months," Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said. "It certainly isn't early, but it's not too late either. It's pretty tough right now, but we aren't going to sit back and relax. We're going to step up and prepare. That's all we can do right now. We can't be looking at the guys ahead of us in our division. We just have to win and do everything in our power to take care of business."
The Padres used a botched double play, two walks by Billingsley (9-6) and a couple of timely singles to score three runs in the fourth inning. With the way the Dodgers are going, that's about all they would need. Correia shut out the Dodgers for 5 2/3 innings, and four members of the Padres' vaunted bullpen did the rest.
The Dodgers' frustrations were epitomized by the performance of first baseman James Loney, their runaway leader in RBIs and the best hitter on the 25-man roster with runners in scoring position. He came to the plate with two men on and one out in the fourth, worked Correia for nine pitches, then flied out to the warning track in right field. He came to the plate again with two men on in the sixth, and Padres reliever Joe Thatcher, who was brought in specifically to face Loney, got him to fly out to center after Loney poked one pitch up the left-field line that curved foul and went into the stands.
Finally, Loney came up with two men on one more time in the eighth, this time with Padres closer Heath Bell coming in to face him, and grounded to first.
"He had a couple of good at-bats and hit one ball to the wall," Torre said. "He's all right. James is a little unpredictable with some of his at-bats, but he was all right."
Indeed, Loney is still hitting a sizzling .336 for the season with runners in scoring position. But right now, for the Dodgers, even their most reliable weapons seem to be misfiring. By doing nothing more than splitting this four-game series, they allowed the Padres to simply run four days off the clock as far as eliminating the Dodgers from the division race, even if the second-place San Francisco Giants are still breathing down their necks. By losing four of the seven games they played with the Padres over the past 10 days, well, the Dodgers put themselves in a hole that is going to be difficult to climb out of in the 53 regular-season games that remain, especially given that they won't get another crack at the Padres until Sept. 6.
"That was just one game," Blake said. "It wasn't the season. It's not like that game right there will make or break our season."
It might not have broken their season, but if this keeps up much longer, it just might break their spirits.
With a man on first, nobody out and Adrian Gonzalez at the plate, the Dodgers employed their usual exaggerated shift for the Padres' left-handed-hitting slugger. Second baseman Ryan Theriot moved far onto the grass in shallow right field and third baseman Blake moved to the normal second-base spot so that at least one player, shortstop Jamey Carroll, wouldn't have to leave his regular position.
Gonzalez hit a tailor-made, double-play grounder directly at Carroll, who fed Blake for the force at second. But Blake, who in his entire career has played one game at second base, one game at short and has almost no experience turning the pivot, had trouble getting the ball out of his glove for the relay throw.
By the time Blake got the ball to first, it was too late to get Gonzalez. The next four batters either singled or worked Billingsley for walks, and the Padres scored three runs in the inning to take a 3-0 lead.
"I couldn't get it out," Blake said. "I was playing farther off the bag than I probably should have. I probably should have been closer in double-play depth. It looked like the ball kind of scooted on [Carroll]. He told me afterward he thought he got rid of it early."
When Gonzalez came to bat again in the fifth and the seventh, each time with a runner on first and one out, the Dodgers had switched to a more conventional shift, with Blake moving to shortstop and Carroll to the right side of the bag. When Gonzalez came to bat for the final time in the ninth, with nobody on base, the Dodgers went back to the original shift of Blake to the right of the bag and Carroll in his normal spot.
As part of a ninth-inning double switch, Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier wound up at first base for the first time in his major league career. After Loney made the final out in the bottom of the eighth, Octavio Dotel came in to pitch the ninth and was inserted into Loney's (fourth) spot in the order.
Garret Anderson, who had pinch hit for George Sherrill in the No. 9 spot in the eighth inning and who also has never played first base in the majors, stayed in the game in right field. Although Ronnie Belliard was available off the bench, Torre wanted to keep Ethier's bat in the lineup for a possible ninth-inning rally, something that became much less likely two batters into the inning when Chris Denorfia's two-run, inside-the-park homer stretched the Padres' lead from 3-0 to 5-0.
Torre said he asked Ethier before putting him at first base.
"I thought it was a joke at first," Ethier said. "But he wasn't smiling, so I said OK."
Ethier played a full season at first base as a sophomore at Arizona State in 2002, so the position wasn't completely foreign to him. He said he borrowed Loney's first baseman's mitt. But other than holding on Tony Gwynn, who led off the inning with a walk, Ethier wasn't involved in any action defensively.
De Jon Watson, the Dodgers' assistant general manager for player development, confirmed via text message Thursday night that the club has agreed to terms on a four-year extension of its 2-year-old player-development contract with the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, which will continue the affiliation through at least 2014. The Dodgers' previous Double-A affiliation was with the Jacksonville Suns, who, like the Lookouts, are members of the Southern League.
Rare Occurrence Du Jour
Denorfia's homer came on a freak play in which he hit a ball up the left-field line that Scott Podsednik failed to pick up -- but never touched -- at the spot where the tarpaulin is rolled up, resulting in the ball skipping past Podsednik and rolling all the way to the wall. It was the first inside-the-park home run by a visiting player at Dodger Stadium since Gary Matthews Jr. did it for the Angels on June 17, 2007. It was the first one by any player at Chavez Ravine since the Dodgers' Blake DeWitt did it on May 6, 2008, against the New York Mets.
By the Numbers
25 -- consecutive scoreless innings, a career best, for Billingsley before he gave up those three runs in the fourth. Billingsley had pitched a five-hit shutout against the San Francisco Giants on July 21, six shutout innings against the Padres at Petco Park on July 27 and 6 2/3 shutout innings at San Francisco on Saturday before blanking the Padres on two hits through the first 3 1/3 innings of Thursday's game.
Quote of the Day
"If we win a lot, it'll be easy. That is what I'm looking forward to. The last couple of games, we have been playing great. If we keep this up, I'll be a happy camper." -- Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, asked before the game how difficult it will be for him emotionally to watch from the dugout while sidelined with a torn labrum in his right hip. Martin will be on crutches for at least the next three weeks and likely will miss the rest of the season.
The Dodgers begin a three-game series with the Washington Nationals, whom they haven't seen since April. The Nationals have lost 10 of their past 11 games at Dodger Stadium, and they had to overcome a six-run deficit to claim the only victory during that span. Left-hander Clayton Kershaw (10-6, 2.94 ERA) will take the mound in Friday night's series opener and will be opposed by Nationals lefty John Lannan (2-5, 5.63).
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.